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If I Stay movie review

if i stay movie posterSo, I saw that movie based on a YA novel about teens in love who are faced with questions of life and death. No, not that one, at least not most recently. I’m talking about the adaptation of Gayle Forman’s 2009 novel If I Stay, directed by R. J. Cutler (MGM and New Line Cinema, August 2014; PG-13). Warning: If you stay with this post, you’ll find some major spoilers.

When I went looking for a viewing companion, the premise produced shudders from more than one friend. For the uninitiated, the title refers to seventeen-year-old Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz)’s wrenching decision to go on living — or not — as she observes her comatose body after a car accident that left her critically injured and the rest of her family even worse.

In case you haven’t noticed, YA movies are hot these days, and studios seem to get that the books are hot, too. Like The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent, and other recent movies based on YA novels, this one keeps its story very close to the original text. Mia’s cello playing is important in the book, and so it’s important in the movie, too, even though it’s not as “Hollywood” as her boyfriend Adam’s (Jamie Blackley) rock band.

If I Stay is a cinematically paced book, which helps. Forman alternates between scenes of Mia’s pre-accident life and the post-accident drama. This structure saves both the book and the movie from long strings of hospital scenes and breaks up the emotional intensity with happier moments that increase our emotional investment in these characters. Mia’s rocker parents, affably performed by Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard, and little brother Teddy, played by a sincere Jakob Davies, are simply fun and lovable characters; we want to spend time with them and understand why Mia does, too.

Though the movie mostly adopts the book’s pacing, it does make a few significant tweaks. In the book, Mia and the reader find out very quickly (and slightly more graphically) that both parents have died. The movie ratchets up tension by revealing her mother’s death later and having her father live long enough to arrive at the hospital. The change creates more reasons to keep watching the hospital scenes: Mia has hope for her family early on, and viewers who haven’t read the book (or, well, seen the trailer) might be on the edge of their seats. Teddy’s death comes later in both the book and the movie — but as movie-Mia stays in the same hospital instead of being helicoptered out, she finds out much more directly and it’s more of a defining moment.

If you thought Mia and Adam’s undying-unless-she-goes-to-Julliard love was a little cheesy in the book, you’ll find the same goops of cheddar in the movie. But neither book nor movie pretends their relationship is perfect, and the movie makes their conflict harsher but bases it on the same issues. Although the ending is essentially the same, Adam’s promises leading up to it manage to make the love story more sentimental. (These changes in Mia and Adam’s relationship also make it seem less likely that the studio plans to film the 2011 book sequel, Where She Went.)

Just like that other tear-jerking YA movie about love and mortality, this one emphasizes the choices its characters get to make. Even before Mia must decide whether to live, she’s deciding what to do with her life. Maybe that’s what so many teens like about these kinds of stories. Teens are at a time in their lives when even ordinary decisions start to have higher stakes. There’s something validating about stories that acknowledge that, in some cases, a teenage life is an entire life, and maybe something reassuring about seeing teens confronted with questions so big that choices about school and relationships seem lighter.

Yes, these tragic tales show that some things are beyond teens’ control, but they also make it clear that some things aren’t.

Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College.

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Comments

  1. I love Chloë Grace Moretz. Thanks for the review

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